Mother Teresa at the grave of Enver Hoxha

Every so often, I get a weird idea and can’t get it out of my head until I arrive on a proper resolution. A fine example of this was the time I watched the Christopher Hitchens’ 1994 quasi-documentary Hell’s Angel. Based on Hitchens’ 1995 book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, the short film is, at its core, a bile-filled rant about the life of the Albanian woman who would (eventually) be canonized for her work with the sick and poor in Calcutta, India

Christopher Hitchens

In what is arguably the zenith of Hitchens’ on-screen dissection of the legacy of Mother Teresa, the late essayist (himself an avowed atheist) recalled his subject’s controversial 1991 visit to the land of her birth, which included a surprising visit to the grave of Enver Hoxha. Hitchens goes on to trash Hoxha, referring to him as “Stalinist murder and despot.”

“Mother Teresa admires the strength of the powerful almost as highly as she recommends the resignation of the poor,” Hitchens said in Hell’s Angel. “When she visited her motherland of Albania, she appeared to take seriously St. Paul’s notorious assertion that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God.’ The Albanian authorities had obtained the world’s first officially atheist state. They had persecuted all forms of worship, except that of their leader, Enver Hoxha.”

Hitchens’ assertions on Hoxha’s Albania – a fast-moving combination of overgeneralization and inaccuracy – fade quickly into the mix as he moves to the next stage of his critique of Mother Teresa, a discussion of her relationship with Pope John II. Of course, John Paul II was himself the veritable antithesis of Enver Hoxha, not by virtue of his spirituality but because of his overt efforts to undermine and destabilize communist societies during his reign as pontiff. It’s a glaring contradiction, to be sure; mounting an attack on one person for paying respect to the architect of an atheist state while heaping further enmity on the same individual for her relationship with one of the best-known spiritual leaders of her day. But it fits together in Christopher Hitchens’ overarching narrative, which holds that every aspect of Mother Teresa’s existence must be subjected to extreme hostility and contempt. She had some unfortunate positions and associations, indeed. But Hitchens’ unbalanced critiques – which denied even the possibility that she had accomplished anything noteworthy or positive in her lifetime (much like his hit and run comments about Hoxha) – were always driven by his highly selective and decidedly personal agenda.

Although he was undeniably a talented writer and entertaining speaker, Christopher Hitchens lost credibility in my mind when he openly supported the administration of George W. Bush beginning in 2002. In fact, as Bush wrapped up his second term, Hitchens still held Bush in high regard and stated he had “no regrets” for publicly supporting Bush’s reelection. Around the same time, Hitchens renewed his attacks on Mother Teresa, denouncing her as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” It is something of a glaring contradiction in and of itself that Hitchens could roundly condemn the likes of Hoxha and Mother Teresa and then subsequently take up the  mantle for Bush, who once nonchalantly acknowledged that his decision to wage war against the people of Iraq had resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 civilians in just two years’ time. (Subsequent and more comprehensive estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq place the final figure much higher, ranging between 112,000 and 124,000.)

Still frame from Hell’s Angel

Hitchens’ simultaneous haranguing of Enver Hoxha and Mother Teresa ultimately led me to see both individuals in a different light. There’s some yin and yang there, to be sure. Mother Teresa likely has more adulators than detractors, and vice versa for Mr. Hoxha. And while there are likely a lot of folks who revile them both, the amount of people who hold them both in high regard is probably pretty slight. Still, I think it’s not entirely impossible to effectively reconcile them as being worthy of respect at some level, although I know many people would not agree with me on this point.

After a bit of reflection, I decided that I wanted a picture to more or less commemorate such an unusual point in time. It would confuse some people, for sure. But I felt like it was a poignant enough scene that, if I took it in on a regular basis, it might lead to some introspection and even a compelling conversation or two.

So the quest began, but I quickly came up empty in my search. I couldn’t find a high resolution still image online and a still frame from the Hitchens show wouldn’t be of suitable quality to print. I was sure that there would be a black and white photo of the scene in The Missionary Position, but I checked with a friend who said that it wasn’t in there – which is kind of surprising, given the Hitchens’ emphasis of the event in Hell’s Angel. So, I more or less figured that my quest was at an end unless I could find an artist willing to produce a rendering for me.

Then, shortly after the 2016 election, I saw a funny illustration online depicting a throw down between Joseph Stalin and the president-elect himself. A friend had shared it on Facebook but nobody really seemed to know the origin of the cartoon. A reverse image search via Google led me to the personal blog of artist Brett Marcus Cook who told me the picture was an original that he did on the fly, but he was kind enough to whip up a new one for a modest fee.

Image by Brett Marcus Cook, 2017.

I then asked Mr. Cook about drawing the image of Mother Teresa at Hoxha’s grave and he agreed to give it a shot. I had a few specifications in mind for the scene, and I shared them in an e-mail:

  • The grave should be clearly marked with Enver Hoxha’s name. I think the small Albanian flag on the slab is important, too.
  • The scene should depict only Mother Teresa, the grave, and the lowers (none of the background folks).
  • The imagery should not be overtly hostile or insulting to either Mother Teresa or Enver Hoxha.
  • The background can be relatively uncomplicated (like just a solid color)

After a couple of days, Mr. Cook shared with me his commissioned depiction of the scene, perfectly capturing my the vision that I had laid out over the course of our correspondence. And as happy as I was with the scan that he sent via e-mail, the hard copy that I received in the mail later in the week was even more impressive.

“Mother Teresa at the Grave of Enver Hoxha.”
Image by Brett Marcus Cook, 2017.

My original plan was to place the drawing in an ornate frame, adding another level of intrigue to the notion that anyone would commemorate such an unusual moment in time as the sight of such a revered figure in the Catholic faith visiting the tomb of a notorious communist. But in the end, I thought it would be best to go with a simple black mat and frame, complimenting the solemnity of Mr. Cook’s rendering.

The picture now hangs on the wall of my office at work, marking a fleeting moment of communion between two people who, in my opinion, have been regrettably misunderstood by so many of their fellow human beings.


Further Reading:
Enver Hoxha on the Revolutionary and Reactionary Potential of Religion   The Espresso Stalinist
Nexhmije Hoxha on questions of crime and punishment   gammacloud.org
The Struggle Against Religion in Socialist Albania and the Closure of Its Religious Institutions in 1966-67   Alliance-ML

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On Salinger and psychopathology

Via social media, I recently noted that I had become accidentally immersed in the book Salinger, an exhaustive biography of J.D. Salinger published by David Shields and Shane Salerno. About two-thirds into the work, I realized that my opinion of the Catcher In the Rye author was already irrevocably changed, with respect to Salinger as an author and as a human being. To be precise, I found the emerging portrait of to be “completely unlikeable and virtually irredeemable” before I had even reached the final chapters of the story of his life.

Now that I am completely finished with the tome, I do indeed find Salinger to be reproachable in virtually every respect, from his unconscionable treatment of girls and women in his personal life to his contentious relationship with his admirers and devoted fans. These foibles – and many, many more – are thoroughly examined by Shields and Salerno in their lofty endeavor.

To be sure, the book Salinger is not without its faults. One especially astute review correctly characterized the work as a “sprawling, cut-and-paste collage,” for although it is an extensive and in-depth review of primary resources; the work often degenerates into yawning patchwork of reminiscences built around selected themes. Put simply, Salinger often lacks the kind of coherent narrative voice readers should expect from a serious work. As such, it’s less of a biography and more of a patchwork of recollections and excerpts. The general tack of Salinger is hardly that of a charitable portrait of the artist, ultimately taking the shape of a lengthy indictment as the book rolls on. Indeed, the lion’s share of Salinger’s involvements and interactions with those close to him, seem to end in estrangement, shame, and sorrow as per the reams of qualitative data amassed by the book’s authors.

Where Shields and Salerno try and move towards a more definitive narrative ultimately proves just as problematic as the above-noted defects in their scholarship. In Chapter 18, entitled “Assassins,” the authors review the cases of high-profile celebrity attackers John Hinckley Jr., Mark David Chapman, and Robert John Bardo, noting that each man cited Salinger’s magnum opus Catcher In the Rye as a key influence in their respective crimes. But the authors’ arguments extend well beyond a simple (and arguably more plausible) assertion that violent art can lead to violent acts. Rather, Shields and Salerno practically implicate Salinger in the crimes of Hinckley, Chapman, and Bardo, brazenly adopting a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument that is effectively built upon the notion that each man processed the ideas and themes of Salinger’s work by employing logic and rational thought.

The Catcher in the Rye reemerges in the 1980s, misinterpreted as an assassination manual.

DAVID SHIELDS: There’s a huge amount of psychic violence in the book; Holden’s voice is full of hellacious fury. If you read the book out of neediness or desperation, you will read Holden’s antipathy to the culture as a license to kill. In the “wrong” hands, read the “wrong” way, the book’s emotional rage can become an endorsement to express your hatred toward “phonies” through violence.

… The complicating factor in Salinger’s case—the deepening factor—is the extraordinary intimacy he creates between narrator and reader, and this intimacy is mixed with sublimated violence. He’s so good at creating a voice that seems to be practically caressing your inner ear.

It’s as if the assassins and would-be assassins who read The Catcher in the Rye are reading the book too literally. Everywhere Holden goes—Pencey, Manhattan, his parents’ apartment—he’s an utterly powerless individual. What the book shows you is how Holden comes to accept and even embrace the weakness—the brokenness—within himself, within Phoebe, within everybody. If you’re reading the book through an especially distorted lens, you feel so acutely Holden’s powerlessness that you say, “Yeah, I feel powerless, too,” and you don’t make the crucial leap that Holden finally does and Salinger always does at the end of every book and what the imaginative reader is asked to do…

– Salinger, p. 461.

It is of course important to note that all three of the above-noted attackers were diagnosed with schizophrenia, a fact that more or less eludes Shields and Salerno in their analysis. Most people who have had either personal or clinical interaction with a person suffering from schizophrenia likely understands that there is seldom a basis in reality (especially one of cause and effect) that properly justifies the actions of an affected person who is in the throes of his or her illness. Consider the following symptomatology, as described by the DSM Library:

Schizophrenia is the prototypical psychotic disorder. Not only is it the most common psychosis, but schizophrenia tends to involve abnormalities in all five of the emphasized symptom domains: hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking (speech), grossly disorganized or abnormal motor behavior (including catatonia), and negative symptoms.

For good measure, the authors include comments from subjects who maintain that Salinger himself probably did not intend for anyone to be victimized because of his writings. But on the whole, these passing assertions do not stand up against the unmistakable arc of the “Assassins” chapter of Salinger.

Time, Sep. 15, 1961

Time, Sept. 15, 1961

Readers of Salinger are thus presented with a slippery slope: If they are to accept the conclusion that the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan and the murders of John Lennon and Rebecca Schaefer were a proximate result of The Catcher In the Rye, they must also accept such notions that the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson’s belief that their White Album was a manifesto for race war in America or that David Berkowitz’s dog was complicit in the “Son of Sam” murders.

My purpose in raising the above point is not to defend J.D. Salinger or his work. Indeed, taking the entire record of Salinger’s life and work into account (with respect to what is presented by Shields and Salerno and beyond), it certainly appears difficult to dispute that the celebrated author earned every iota of his reputation as an extremely unpleasant person. Misogyny, egotism, and elitism were pervasive and recurring defects in his character by an overwhelming majority of firsthand accounts. But to blame him for inciting murder based upon the words and actions of individuals who were indisputably and seriously mentally ill is beyond the pale of anything that can be seriously considered as a responsibly crafted critique.

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Walt Kelly’s 1952… in 2016

Drawn from the narrative commentary in Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years With Pogo, Walt Kelly’s assessment of the rhetoric and movements of his time bears striking similarities to America’s present-day sociopolitical cacophony.


NINETEEN hundred and fifty, a year that John Gunther once referred to as “bizarre,” worried me because its daily record was providing unwarranted competition in the comedy field. Against the numbing background of the Korean War, we had largely finished with the uneasy flirtation between this country and Russia which had followed the peace of 1945. We were seeing spies, communists and other subversives under beds which we had never made.

Mr. McCarthy, a gentleman from the progressive state of Wisconsin, suddenly abandoned his pretensions to anonymity and leaped upon the stage somewhat like John Wilkes Booth. He waved varied cards bearing a variety of figures concerning various people hiding in the State department who were carrying bombs, stealing secrets and sucking blood.

Citizens, solid and squashy, were tried for crimes, some of which were invented for the occasion, in the press, in committee, in the parlors before the TV sets and in the chattering brains that pass for informed minds in country club, saloon, factory and executive spa. A wise and accomplished editor said to me, “This is a period when I wouldn’t put my name on the application blank of a garden club.” This was good advice. My experiences in gardens have always led to trouble.

Primitive campfires began to cheer the souls of those who prefer the black of night. We were sure that Russia was arming to the teeth. China entered the Korean catastrophe. Mr. Truman ordered a 1950 model H-bomb, useful for only one purpose. (Using the automobile alone, and without really trying, we had knocked off 366 of our own constituents in the cheery holiday weekend at the beginning of the year.)

We decided to prepare for what we were not sure. American Legionnaires staged a mock invasion of Mosinee, Wisconsin, apparently with the supine acquiescence of 1,400 inhabitants, to show the evils of “totalitarianism.” No one said whose.

True, we felt we had to rearm and to be wary, but few signs of the well-balanced mind showed anywhere outside the lunatic asylums…

 

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Forgotten photos: The Mitchell Corn Palace

Among the more curious items that I have acquired over the years is a small collection of 35 mm slides. Some the slides are professional photos that are from sets produced for tourists. Others are from private collections, unlabeled and virtually untraceable at this point. Many of those from the aforementioned group are stamped with the month and year they were processed, but the specific locations of the scenes as well as the names of the photographers are now lost to the ages.

I’ll share samples from my collection from time to time, beginning with a couple of photos featuring the Mitchell Corn Palace. According to Wikipedia and other sources, the Mitchell Corn Palace is an event venue located in Mitchell, South Dakota that is covered in murals and designs made of corn and other grains. The building is redecorated every year using a style described by the facility’s official site as “earchitecture.”

The images below were produced using a Wolverine F2D-8 slide & negative scanner.

Mitchell Corn Palace (front view); Mitchell, South Dakota. November 1985. Photographer unknown.

Mitchell Corn Palace, alternate angle

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